- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tonight, it begins.
The wait is over and we finally get to see Big Ten teams play games that count. As opening weekend begins a little early with three games tonight, here are 10 things to watch around the league.
1. Quarterback questions at Michigan, Penn State: Two of the league's traditional powers likely will be evaluating multiple quarterbacks in their openers. True freshman Robert Bolden was named a surprise starter for the Nittany Lions, but sophomores Matt McGloin and Kevin Newsome also are likely to get some work. Denard Robinson could be poised to take control at Michigan, but head coach Rich Rodriguez expects to play more than one signal caller, so sophomore Tate Forcier and true freshman Devin Gardner likely will take some snaps in the spotlight. Penn State has to see what it has under center before a Week 2 trip to defending national champ Alabama.
2. Opportunity knocks for Marve, Boilers: No team in the Big Ten has a better opportunity to make a national statement than Purdue. All eyes will be on South Bend -- really, when aren't they? -- as Notre Dame kicks off the Brian Kelly era, but Purdue can ruin the fun by upsetting the Fighting Irish. Quarterback Robert Marve has done all the right things in West Lafayette since transferring from Miami, and he boasts a big arm and plenty of weapons to attack a suspect Notre Dame secondary. Marve should flourish in the spread offense, so expect a strong debut. It might not matter, though, if Purdue can't upgrade its run defense and protect a new-look secondary from Dayne Crist and Michael Floyd.
3. Heisman push begins for Pryor, Clay: When we last saw Terrelle Pryor in a game, the Ohio State quarterback was at his best, winning Offensive MVP honors at the Rose Bowl. By all accounts, Pryor made strides during the offseason and said he has a greater grasp of the offense and what it takes to be a leader on the big stage. His accolades heading into the season -- Big Ten preseason Offensive Player of the Year, Heisman Trophy candidate -- are based largely on hype and potential, but Pryor finally gets a chance to produce some hard evidence against Marshall. Wisconsin running back John Clay has been largely overlooked in the preseason, but he also could help his Heisman candidacy with a strong debut at UNLV, which ranked 112th nationally in rush defense a year ago.
4. Mystery team makes debut in St. Louis: Who's the Big Ten's mystery team this season? Illinois. The Illini have new offensive and defensive schemes, a new starting quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and plenty of unknowns on both sides of the ball. Missouri typically brings out the worst in Ron Zook's squad, and Illinois will need to show some resiliency in the Edward Jones Dome. Scheelhaase is young but skilled and athletic, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the spotlight in an NFL stadium. Illinois' secondary faces Blaine Gabbert and Missouri's high-powered passing attack without two starters (safety Supo Sanni, cornerback Terry Hawthorne), so linebacker Martez Wilson and others need to step up.
5. Iowa's new-look offensive line: The Hawkeyes shouldn't have much trouble beating Eastern Illinois, although after last year's roller-coaster ride, you never know. The opener should give a new-look offensive line time to get comfortable and create holes for running back Adam Robinson. Iowa will start three new players up front -- right tackle Markus Zusevics, right guard Adam Gettis and center James Ferentz -- and needs to get comfortable before bigger tests the next two weeks against Iowa State and Arizona. Running back Jewel Hampton sits out because of a suspension, but Iowa really needs to get the run game going with Robinson and adequately protect quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
6. Spartans' secondary in spotlight: Most point to the secondary as Michigan State's biggest weakness in 2009, and for good reason. The Spartans ranked last in the Big Ten in pass yards allowed (267.6 ypg), allowed 11 more passing touchdowns (32 total) than any other Big Ten squad and recorded only six interceptions, the second-lowest total in the league. Several underperforming players are gone, and Michigan State hopes to be younger but better in the back four this fall. Cornerback Johnny Adams returns to the mix, and hopes are high for Trenton Robinson, Chris L. Rucker and others. The secondary needs to step up Saturday against Western Michigan, which loses standout quarterback Tim Hiller but returns top wideouts Robert Arnheim and Jordan White.
7. Line dance in the Volunteer State for Gophers, Wildcats: Both Minnesota and Northwestern boast veteran offensive lines that need to upgrade their run-blocking ability this fall. Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for the second straight year in 2009, while Northwestern finished eighth and had no big plays in the ground game. It'll be very interesting to see how both lines perform in what likely will be balmy weather in Tennessee. Minnesota opens Thursday night at Middle Tennessee, while Northwestern visits Vanderbilt in Nashville 48 hours later. Both squads have multiple backs competing for carries, but the performance of the two lines will go a long way toward showing what the upcoming season will hold.
8. Brock Mealer leads Michigan out of the tunnel: Doctors told Brock Mealer he'd never walk again after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident that killed his father and the girlfriend of his brother, Elliott, an offensive lineman for Michigan. But Brock never gave up hope and worked with Michigan strength and conditioning coaches Mike Barwis and Parker Whiteman to work his way out of a wheelchair. Saturday, he'll be walking out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium as he leads the Wolverines onto the field for their opener against Connecticut. "He's that one percent," Wolverines defensive tackle Mike Martin told me. "People said he'd never walk again, and he's proving people wrong right there. We’ve got to come out right behind him and show what we've got."
9. Indiana's new-look defense: The Hoosiers' season likely hinges on whether a historically porous defense can improve. IU will use the 3-4 alignment more this season, but the coaches also are excited about defensive ends Darius Johnson and Fred Jones. Tyler Replogle provides excellent leadership at linebacker, but Indiana needs three junior college transfers -- linebacker Jeff Thomas and defensive backs Andre Kates and Lenyatta Kiles -- to make an immediate impact. A strong debut against Towson is key.
10. Quarterback-turned-receivers: There was a time when Michigan State's Keith Nichol, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Purdue's Justin Siller looked like the potential answers for their teams at quarterback. All three players now will play prominent roles at wide receivers on opening weekend. All three received strong reviews in training camp as receivers, and all three could start on Saturday. Gray is the likeliest to be called upon as a quarterback, as he remains Adam Weber's backup for the Gophers. Siller makes his first appearance since 2008 after being suspended from school for the 2009-10 academic year.
9hMitch Sherman and Josh Moyer
4dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman